fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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plenty of water and willing fish, and a return to Crooked Creek, part two

If you missed it, part one can be found here.

South of Hot Creek as Hwy 395 skirts the eastern shore of Crowley Lake, the landscape shifts from the flat topography of the Long Valley Caldera to small hills dotted by decomposing granite boulders. This glacial till, an accumulation of unsorted glacial sediment, begins to dominate the scenery to the east. A few minutes later, a flat spot to the west marks Toms Place and shelter for the weekend, Tom’s Place Resort.

This is a place that sits apart from time. It must have been a sight welcomed by travelers when it was built in 1919. A small seven-room lodge, twelve cabins, and a requisite general store and café sit between the trees, rustic and worn, now blend into the surroundings. After many return visits, it’s home away from home.

Each of our two cabins will house six men of a certain age and prone to snoring. I arrive early to get my pick of a bed against an outside wall.

Fishmaster John – the organizer of this trip – is already there. Cabin 25 is open, guests in cabin 26 have yet to check out. I claim my bed, unload my gear. History hangs in the air and little has changed save for new vinyl flooring that replaced cabin’s old indoor/outdoor carpet. True to its rustic theme, the sagging subfloor was left in place and the new flooring follows its uneven contours. I sit down to lunch. John heads out to fish the Owens River.

I spend time listening to what I don’t hear. Though near to the highway, the periodic drone of a passing car quickly dissipates. Soon it’s overwhelmed by the whoosh of wind through tree boughs and the staccato songs of birds and insects. Theirs is the song of late summer, when direct sun can still be uncomfortably warm but the nights cool enough to make it clear fall is around the corner.

Rock Creek

Early morning, looking upstream on Rock Creek.

Others of our group arrive over the next few hours. The first to arrive are Ron aka “Rags”, John K. (our wine steward), Richard, Dave, Gerry, Terry, and Wayne, accompanied by Mike, a veteran in the club’s Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing program. Kirby the Raffle Dude wanders in, Tenkara rod in hand. His long-time partners, Fred and Greg – the guests who had yet to check out –unlock cabin 26. It’s become a habit among those three to arrive a few days early, allowing time to fall into a well-established routine of eat-fish-nap-eat.

There’s supposed to be fifteen of us, eleven in the two cabins, two in the lodge, and one in another, smaller cabin. That’s when the unthinkable is mentioned. Where’s Brewmeister Ron? Concerned comments rise. He usually arrives during the early afternoon. Now it’s closer to evening than afternoon.

Ron and his home-brewed beer arrive well before dinner but long after pessimistic speculation that we might have to resort to mass-manufactured brews. The group complete, we settle into camping chairs to lie about the fish caught earlier in the day and our hopes for tomorrow. Gerry serves up two lasagnas, both of which disappear before pies and cheesecake materialize in their place.

It’s the little things –and folks who attend –that make this outing what it is. How a trip-long debate pitting the Davy Knot against the Clinch cumulates in a spontaneous experiment that involves Wayne tying both knots on a single strand of monofilament, then pulling both ends until one fails. (The Clinch Knot would fail about 90% of the time.) Or, the homemade food that tastes so much better with a side of the outdoors. The comradery that comes with a common interest and the fellowship found in failing to land that one trout that took too many casts to fool.

Little Lakes Valley Trail

The Little Lakes Valley Trail after cresting the first rise. It continues into the far off mountains.

The long shadows of sunset merge to into the darkness of the night. When conversation wanes the quiet breath of nature can be heard around us. No one’s checking the clock, but almost in unison we begin to wrap up conversations and head to bed.

The morning is the same, in reverse. The first noise arises from a fumbling with an unfamiliar coffeemaker. It’s cold in the early sun. We’re wearing jackets that won’t be worn the rest of the day. Convenience rules the breakfast choices: mostly muffins and cereal. There’s envy rather than criticism of the two guys who choose cheesecake.

The only plan today is to fish. The night before Fishmaster John and I had discussed heading up to the Mosquito Flat Trailhead. He and I did the same the last time I was on this trip. The trailhead starts at 10,300 feet and goes up from there but we both appreciate stopping every once and a while as we make our way to Mack Lake. The lake is only about 200 feet higher but the trail, which parallels Rock Creek, climbs substantially higher before descending again. John veers off the trail to find the lake’s inlet, and I follow.

Small seasonal creeks still soak the ground that’d normally be dry this time of year. John heads for the inlet. I’m heading upstream.

It’s one of those bright days that can only be experienced at higher elevations. Made infinitely better by a lack of human influence. Little Lakes Valley rests between a range of peaks to the north and south. They’re still frosted with snow. High-Sierra granite dominates the landscape. Where it doesn’t, the land is green.

Mack Lake

Looking down Rock Creek, toward the inlet to Mack Lake.

The creek here butts up against the bottom of the southern side of the valley. It’s almost impossible to pick one of the riffles, plunge pools, or tailouts that’ll christen my new Tenkara rod. (A Japanese fly rod, if you will, without a reel.) It takes some time to get accustomed to the casting. My left hand keeps reaching for the reel that’s not there. The fish are there. Fingerlings too small strike nearly every drift of my fly. I move upstream to a promising pocket and my educated guess is rewarded with a small but vibrant brook trout. This is a pattern repeated most of the morning as John and I leapfrog each other as we head upstream toward Marsh and Heart lakes.

As on most streams, creeks, or river, I find one stretch where I just know trout should be. Here it’s a long riffle that ends before a small plunge. The buffer, just in front of the rocks at the end of the run, is what catches my attention. I cast and drift the fly, starting near the bank in front of me and repeat, working towards the opposite bank.

Disappointment begins to eat at my confidence. Fly fishing isn’t for the pessimist. It requires work, even for the smallest of unseen fish. Knowledge is one thing but optimism drives us.

Brook Trout

A prime example of a wild Rock Creek brook trout.

After too many casts and now almost inattentive, I make one more to a far seam. A splash at my fly and my optimism is replenished. It feels like a decent fish, perhaps a ten-plus inch brook trout. But hooking trout in moving water, even small streams, can be misleading. Without a reel, I have to step back, raise the rod high, then grab the line. In a creek well known for a vast population of brook trout, I’ve found Salmo trutta, a brown trout. It looks nicer than most of the brookies, which tend to always look hungry. This brown trout, in contrast, looks muscular and well fed.

It’s a nice stroll down hill when John and I leave. It’s late morning and the parking has filled to capacity as day hikers begin their ascent. We talk of exploring Deadman Creek east of the highway. The day before, I fished to the west of the highway, closer to its headwaters.

It’s the special regulations that piqued our interest in that section of Deadman Creek: limited take of two fish, each of which must be at least 18 inches in length, with gear restricted to artificial lures and flies with single, barbless hooks. Clearly there’d be no need for such regulations of big fish weren’t there.

We both made the short trip there and explored different sections. When I was able to squeeze through the brush lining the banks, I found a few small fish. It only dawned on me later that the special regulations were likely to protect spawning fish, since Deadman Creek is the main feeder stream of Upper Owens River, up which fish from Crowley Lake come to reproduce. It wasn’t time wasted; Forest Service roads look me along ridges separating sizable canyons, red, dry and dotted with pine trees and scrub. At the crest are views of the Long Valley Caldera.

The promise of cold beer and another good meal eventually calls all of us back to Toms Place. Appetites sharpened by a long day of hiking, fishing, and simply being outdoors, we dug into Wayne’s taco casserole, more pie and more cheesecake. Before, during, and after, the great knot debate rages on.

Tomorrow the fishing would on stillwater. Water that would be too still.

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my opening day…five weeks late

January’s promise to get out and fish earlier, more often and in different places now echoes with so much emptiness that the unthinkable is the only resolution.

Yes, I will be chasing trout this weekend. Memorial Day weekend.

The events and circumstances that kept me closer to home haven’t been unpleasant. They just didn’t include trout. Staying home last weekend included free and unrestricted quantities of barbecue and wine, not really a bad thing.

This is the first and possibly one of the few times to get to the cabin this summer, and despite the Sierra Nevada and its foothills being infested with a couple thousand campers and anglers, I’m going. With fishing reports read and flows checked, plans are firming.

An eyewitness account from a fellow fly fisherman suggests that a target river and one of its tributaries will still be high and muddy for a few days. But that bad news lends some optimism that little R Creek may have the water needed for guilt-free fishing for its wild rainbows. It’s a ten-mile dirt road drive to this little gem, so while in the area it’ll make sense to explore other blue lines on the map and not too far away.

It’s a certainty that a few high mountain streams will be walked, likely with the oldest son. A few will be familiar, others offering an opportunity to explore. Generally, this trip will be characterized by a philosophy that hiking a few thousand feet, maybe a mile or two, will leave the crowds behind.

Hopefully I’ll be the guy you won’t see this weekend.


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on being a more imaginative fly fisher

There’s a fear that can creep over me in the company of other fly fishermen. Those who know me personally are likely to agree there’s a touch of restraint in my personality. Blending into a crowd is specialty learned during middle school; let’s spin it as a well-honed survival skill. Thankfully, in the years since, I have been able to put myself out there with the backing of friends and colleagues, though I still haven’t totally abandoned my introversion.

It was a recent podcast that made me realize that perhaps that fear coincides with the niggling thought that I may be a lazy fly fisher.

But I will hike to the fish. There was no hesitation last summer to march three miles into high-altitude lakes for brook trout no longer than the spread of my hand. I also tie flies. I built a fly rod. And it’s no problem getting up early to spend the day driving the 240-mile loop that takes me over Tioga Pass and Sonora Pass, alongside high-elevation streams and lakes as well as high-desert rivers.

I still feel a bit unworthy among my fly fishing peers. When others are describing the physical skill it took to lay a dry fly in front of a big trout 40 feet away, across four different currents and through 30 mile-per-hour crosswinds, I have no response. Oh, I’m catching fish to be sure. Just with less effort. It’s called nymphing; often under an indicator or dry fly.

It’s not that I’m apprehensive of trying different techniques. I’ll swing small wet flies, cast dries as far as I can — maybe 20 feet accurately — and chuck streamers when an opportunity presents itself.

Thinking about it, after being hammered by messages in blogs, podcasts and online forums that nymphing is inelegant (it is), too productive to be considered a real challenge and more akin to lure fishing than fly fishing, it occurs to me that nymphing, in fact, requires a bit more creativity than other tactics.

Why?

Nymphing often requires visualizing where your fly is and what its doing; rarely can you see it like a dry fly. It takes some thinking to set the depth at which that bead-head fly might be presented to fish hugging the stream bottom.

Observational skills are much more important. With dry flies you can rely on visual cues. When swinging flies, the take is abrupt and obvious. Nymphing, however, requires keen observation of subtle clues: the movement of the rod tip, the twitch of a strike indicator, even a suspicious flash of color. It takes skill to discern a take from your fly bumping simply into a rock or snag or hanging up on weeds.

What I’m trying to imply is that there’s another level of mental dexterity involved in nymphing and not required of other tactics. All tactics benefit from some knowledge of fish habits, hydrology and entomology and basic situational awareness.

Nymphing, however, requires imagination.

Guess that’s why it works so well for a day dreamer like me.


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how to be a hero (or, hey, leave those fish alone)

It’s clear that nature’s dewatering of California this year will leave the trout that can be found skittish and stressed. I suppose that only the most thoughtful fishermen will leave them well enough alone as the summer wears on, or perhaps cross to the dark side of warm water species.

Opening Day may mark the beginning of the few weeks during which decent trout fishing may be found not too far away, while fish mortality is at a minimum. After that, it’s unlikely you’ll find solitude at a high alpine stream, creek or lake. The same climate change pushing wildlife to higher altitudes will similarly affect their human hunters.

This summer and fall — when still-flowing rivers will only offer skinny water — will be seasons of small fly rods and even smaller flies. A few small wild trout fisheries I hold dear (and of which I also hold a delusion that only I know about them) won’t withstand much molestation, meaning I’ll also be somewhere else.

It’s been proposed that “heroic measures” will be needed to save California’s salmon runs. As the weather warms up and naturally flowing water is scarce, it’ll be just as heroic to leave alone those fish that have nowhere else to go.


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go big(ger) or go fishless

The reality of my fly fishing outings is that more time is spent preparing and getting to the designated spot than is spent in considering the fish I might hook and, hopefully, land. Most of the time, this isn’t an issue. Then there’s the one time of year when it is.

Like most fly fisherman, I have my usual haunts; some more wild, some more convenient. Some of these places require a lot of planning: the scheduling of vacation time, packing the gear and more food than I’ll ever eat, and longish driving times. The more convenient places are usually less an hour away from my base of operation, usually the cabin.

That’s where I was a couple of weeks ago when I set out for Sure Thing Creek. It’s not the most wild stream, but in the fall it’s usually quiet. This time of year most of the fish left in the creek — mostly stocked rainbows — are the smartest, which didn’t fall for less refined presentations of hardware, bait and even flies. (At least that’s what I like to tell myself.) I’m familiar with the general ebb and flow of nature here, which usually dictates nymphs at sunrise then a dry/dropper set up about midmorning, which can give way to decent dry fly fishing about midday.

This day I was alone on the creek, which is actually a small tailwater, and the pattern of fishing was much of the same, though everything was delayed about an hour because of the coolness of fall. I spent most of the morning moving through three prime lies, with an embarrassing number of fish to the net. I switched to a dry/dropper with a #20 Red-Butt Zebra Midge hanging on 6X tippet about 12 inches below a #16 Stimulator with a yellow-green body.

Eventually, the number of strikes on either fly suggested a move downstream to a new pool that had been created over the last year when a tree that used to lean over the stream toppled during the winter and higher flows ate away at the bank previously held in place by its roots. The water cascaded over rocks, bubbles bringing oxygen into the pool, which was now wider and longer, and enticing.

I was pretty confident there’d be fish at the top of the pool, out of sight under the bubbles. A prominent seam about foot off the opposite bank also offered promise. I stood at the edge, and where the water immediately in front of me was about three feet deep and I could see the bottom. I cast about 20 feet to the head of the pool and let the flies drift.

It wasn’t until after I had passed my flies through the pool about half a dozen times that my suspicions were confirmed. The first sign was a strike on the nymph, though my hookset was too slow the fish too quickly spit out the fly. A few more casts offered another chance and with a good hookset, and carefully playing the fish, I had a rainbow trout of about 13 inches to the net.

In that moment, I had it all right: the fly, the cast and the presentation. I cast a few more times. The dry fly stopped. I set.

The rod bent more than it should. The first thought was “snag.”

Then the snag moved; slowly at first, but with purpose. Then the fish shook its head. Not the short, rapid shakes of a smaller fish, but the firm, powerful strokes of something larger. Then it shot upstream. Gentle pressure briefly brought back to the middle of the pool before it torpedoed downstream. More pressure, in the opposite direction, turned it around. We danced this way about four times.

Then it surprised me by charging toward me, angling downstream slightly. Stripping loose line, I regained leverage and applied pressure. Slowly the fish began to swing back upstream, paralleling the pool’s edge at my feet. It was a BIG fish. A salmon-sized trout.

With only a quick look, it could have been described as an Atlantic salmon — big spots on a pale background. Stunned, I didn’t respond fast enough to keep it out of the weeds, where it rolled, leaving about 2 lbs. of vegetation on my leader.

The world seemed to move slower than it should at this point, allowing my brain to process every sensory input. It was likely a big brown from the lake below. And between it and me was a foot of monofilament with a diameter of only five hundredths of an inch.

Maybe those thoughts took too much time to process, or maybe it was the fear that arose after realizing the size of my tippet, but a few second later that fish snapped my line with one big surge.

It was only after recovering from my deep momentary despair that I realized that my fault was not considering that I might meet up with a bruiser brown that day, pushed by the urge to spawn out the lake and into this small creek — even though I had landed a few over the years.

I’m just hoping there’s a next time, and that I’m better prepared.


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the 2013 Eastern Sierra Expeditionary Force, part 3

My last full day in the Eastern Sierra was planned around a mid-afternoon visit to Mammoth Brewing. John — a multi-year attendee of this outing — was keen on the idea, so we planned to spend the morning fishing and the afternoon…um…let’s call it “beering.”

We got an early start driving up Rock Creek Canyon to the Mosquito Flats trailhead, at about 10,000 feet. It was a typically crisp fall morning when we geared up and begin hiking, which for stretches was more akin to climbing. It stopped every once and a while to catch my breath admire the scenery.

Looking downstream (east) as Rock Creek exits Heart Lake.

Looking downstream (east) as Rock Creek exits Heart Lake.

We had no particular goal, so about an hour in we departed the trail and headed to the inlet of Heart Lake, which is about a mile and quarter so up the trail. John dropped down to the trail-side of the inlet; I hiked to the opposite side of the lake. Quite a few years ago I hiked this trial, a bit further, fishing the lakes along the way. That year I caught nothing. I know now that it had been too late in the day.

This early morning, however, there was plenty of interest, particularly if I could cast my orange humpy (dry fly) within a foot or so of the reeds lining the lake. There were spots, near inlets and outlets, where I would land half a dozen brookies, most colored up for the fall spawn. Most would slowly emerge from the depths or from behind a submerge log, and either lunch at my fly or flamboyantly refuse it.

Typical brook trout, one of many, caught in Rock Creek and its lakes.

Typical brook trout, one of many, caught in Rock Creek and its lakes.

We’d fish Rock Creek between two other lakes as we descended with the creek. I’d hook an occasional brown trout and stop often to just enjoy where I was. It was a beautiful day, with an ever-present breeze that kept things cool. The sun would be obscured every once and while by dark clouds; the almost black clouds I’ve only seen in the high country. John’s movement would mirror mine for the most part, though he did have to return to the trail to hike over a huge granite outcropping that prevented his following the edge of one lake.

Throughout the morning we met other folks, mostly hikers with a few fly fishermen among them. There was a noticeable absence of hardware or bait fishermen. While the casting is easy on the lakes, greater stealth was required in the close quarters of the creek. Most of the time I would cast downstream about ten feet, piling up some line to allow for a relatively drag-free drift for another five to ten feet. Any closer and my footfall would spook any unseen fish.

By the time we returned to the trailhead, it was time for lunch. My plan included a quick shower — I was going into town after all — and to meet John in Mammoth. We arrived just about the same time and it was easily decided to share a flight of regular beers as well as one of the seasonals. We had a good time talking with a server who worked the summer at Mammoth Brewing and would be heading back to Murphys (where The Wife and I enjoy the fruits of local winemaking), where he’s help with the grape harvest at his family’s winery. I walked out the door with a growler of Floating Rock Hefeweizen and one of Imperial Root Beer.

Both the beer and root beer (which, to my taste buds, is easily one of the best root beers around) are long gone. The fish have forgotten who I am. This just means I’ll have to return.


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the 2013 Eastern Sierra Expeditionary Force, part one

Ask anyone who attended my club’s Eastern Sierra trip about the fish that made it to the net, and he’s likely to tell you it was about 18 inches. And that will be the truth.

For some of our group that was the length of one rainbow trout. For others, that total of 18 inches was the cumulative length of six brook trout. That’s just how it can play out in the Eastern Sierras.

The nice thing about an annual trip is that there always seems be to a landmark at which everyday life melts away and the focus shifts and sharpens to living in the present.

Morning above the West Walker River.

Morning above the West Walker River.

In this case, it occurs once the descent from Sonora Pass begins and the high desert stretches out in front of me. The route of choice this year was Hwy 108, as Hwy 120 (Tioga Road) was closed through mid September due to the Rim Fire. The usual commute traffic was there. Twice I would weave between cows meandering on the asphalt.

There are two maxims that apply to my fly fishing: (1) Get the skunk of as quickly as possible and (2) shaving serves no purpose. To address the first adage, I stopped at the West Walker River earlier than most fly fisherman would even take their first sip of coffee. Early enough to enjoy the stirring experience of hearing reveille echoing from the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center before my first cast.

Most people head for “the bend,” knowing that pods of planted trout can be found and, occasionally, a bigger fish might be found under a cut bank. But upstream, pocket water is a bigger draw for me.

West Walker Wild Rainbow

West Walker Wild Rainbow

Pocket water slows me down considerably, and it’s a good thing. Besides the obvious, avoiding a fall and at least a sprain if not a broken bone or two, the pocket water in the Sierras tends to be favored by the better-looking wild fish, and they need to be stalked. With a slow and low approach, I found plenty of wild rainbows willing to play.

When the sun was high in the sky and hiding my profile consigned me to shade and leg cramps, it was time to head down Hwy 395 to Tom’s Place Resort, , which if you’ve ever been, is a bit more basic than the name implies. But the price is right. The rest of our group, totaling 12, would filter in throughout the afternoon.

After that, the real fishing would begin, to be followed by free flowing homemade beer, good food and plenty of lies.